Thoughts on web sites for photographers

A friend asked me about web sites and I got to thinking about my own web site. I considered how it evolved from a coding disaster, to a nice try, and finally to the real thing. My path, with all its ups and downs, may be instructive for other photographers thinking about their existing (or) future web sites.

The importance of having a web site is indisputable. It is the average photographer’s face to the outside world. For many photographers, like me, it is the key source of assignment work. Though I still have a few clients who will send me other places to photograph, most clients I work for these days want me to photograph something in or around Rhode Island, and they search for photographers (like me) who are in the state.

When I started out, clients would send me from New York City to other cities (and even countries.) As budgets have tightened, editors now want to find photographers in the same place as the subject, to eliminate travel costs. Most of my new clients are editors who find me, and my site, via the “American Society of Media Photographers” find a photographer portal. After verifying that I am up to ASMP standards and indeed live in Providence, they look over my site. If my skills and their needs match, they call me with the assignment. The days of sending in physical portfolios and waiting to hear are long gone because my web site is now my portfolio, which can be reviewed by anyone at any time.

Getting this process in gear was not a smooth process. First, I had to build a site. I was fortunate (I thought) to get an intern who started building the site for college credit. Halfway through, he disappeared, leaving me with a half-finished site, a real coding disaster. I struggled through teaching myself the basics of using Netscape as a web site builder. Some people groan when they learn my first site was built with such primitive software.

One friend said it was like using a pipe wrench when tweezers would be better. The one thing I really like about Netscape (to this day) is that once you build a site, it is by far the easiest program to use if all you want to do is change text and information within a site’s pages. There are dozens of programs that are better for web-site design, but if you need to simply change text on an existing web page of yours, Netscape is a simple but effective tool. You can actually still download Netscape, even though it is no longer being updated. Go to: http://browser.netscape.com/releases to get the version you need depending on what operating system you are using.

After I figured out how to build the site, I had to design it. I took one brief class on marketing and branding. I then locked my head around an idea for marketing myself (and my site) that I refused to let go of. The first incarnation of the site was proof that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I used the phrases, poetic, political, professional to describe the three kinds of work that I did. I liked the alliteration.

Poetic work referred to the light studies imagery I made. Political referred to the documentary projects I produced. Professional referred to the assignment work that I did for various paying clients. Although it was an imaginative strategy and the categories made for nice word play, it was lost on most editors. One kind editor pointed that out to me a few years later, describing it as a nice try. So, a couple years back, I revised the site completely, leading me to what I have now, the real thing.

In all these incarnations of the site, I chose to build a custom site, rather than use a pre-formatted / template based site. Initially I did this because I thought it would be cheaper (debatable) and I would have more control (certainly.)

Through the process of working my way to my current site, I came to appreciate that with the pre-formatted / template based sites, you are paying year in and year out and owning nothing. Though the upfront costs are higher in building a custom site, the long-term costs are lower.

A custom built site is good if you know how to maintain it and add/ remove work easily. A pre-formatted / template based site is better if you cannot manage those issues on your own. With a custom built site, you have to pay a small fee to a company to actually host the site on their server, but that cost is much less that what you pay monthly (or annually) for a pre-formatted / template based site.

The final revision of my current site is a hybrid of the two strategies. The professional graphic designer who created the design, Carol Tea, created the site based on a color scheme she thought would work with my images. That was the “custom” part of the process.

The “template” part of the process came in two remaining steps. Carol also built me a series of Photoshop actions that I use to convert any set of images to the right format for use on the site. Those actions are key because they automate the drudgery-filled repetitive steps of resizing images for the web site.

Then, the site builder who made the actual code for the site Jason Dancisin http://jasmardesign.com built it so, though it looks sophisticated, the operation of it is remarkably simple. There are only 4 types of pages, which I just have to duplicate and repopulate with new text or images.

The opening page is one example and it is pretty straightforward. On the next level in on the site are “text” pages like the “about” page at: http://davidhwells.com/about/index.html Pages for “workshops,” “copyright” and “student’s comments” are all the same structure, with different text. Further into the site are the pages that I call the “directories,” introducing viewers to the various projects I want them to see. An example of a “directory” page is: http://davidhwells.com/light/projects.html The “directory” pages link you to the different “project” pages, an example of which can be seen at http://davidhwells.com/lightStation/index.html

The “directory” pages show a maximum of nine projects and the “project” pages feature a maximum of twentyone images. Though those numbers can appear to be limiting (although I do not find them to be that way) they work very well in terms of simple design (and site coding.)

So for the photographer contemplating building a web site, the question of custom built vs. template based (or something in between) is a difficult one. I will say that the sophisticated end users quickly recognize and easily dismiss sites that are obviously built with particularly generic interfaces such as Smug-Mug or Zen folio. This is not a value judgment on my part. It is simply a fact that magazine editors and art buyers see a serious site as a credential that separates the amateurs from the professionals.

Custom sites tend to look more unique, though the better template based sites can look equally unique. Though I cannot say I did it on purpose, the hybrid system I used takes the best of both worlds and gives me a unique looking site at a reasonable cost, though again, I have to manage it myself.

The one other important thing I learned about building a site is the question of what to name it. Naming a site is important because unless your name is unusual or you are already well known, simply using your name can work against you. I spend a lot of time trying to get folks to MY site, rather than that of the former pro baseball player with the same name. By comparison, my wife has a unique name, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, doubly so if you consider her middle name.

In hindsight, I probably should have named my site Narrative Photography. I have been using that phrase on my letterhead, business cards and promotional pieces for a couple decades. Narrative Photography works particularly well as a site name because it tells you what I do, which in terms of commercial work, is more important then who I am. Now another photographer has the URL NarrativePhotography .com, so I missed the boat.

After you answer the question of who the site is aimed at and what you want it to do, then you can build it however you want using whatever tools/sites you want. If you are aiming the site at other photographers, anything goes. If you are hoping to be seen (and appreciated) by serious photographic professionals, you have to have a site that is up to the standards they expect. Trust me on this when I say, that doing otherwise is nothing more than wasting time.

PS: An exceptional survey of how image buyers react to web-sites can be found at: http://blog.photoshelter.com/corp/2009/02/photography-websites-how-to-de.html

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